Discussing her new book with PEOPLE, Sarah Hurwitz indulged some burning questions about her old job working for the Obamas

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
September 12, 2019 04:00 PM
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No one was too surprised when White House speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz decided to write a book at the end of the Obama administration. After all, a half dozen of her co-workers already had book deals for insider accounts of their tenures in the West Wing.

But it was Hurwitz’s topic — Judaism — that stumped fellow White House alums, she recalls with a chuckle. “They were like, ‘Wow. Okay. Not what I thought you’d be doing,’ ” she tells PEOPLE.

The unlikely finished product is Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality And a Deeper Connection to Life—in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There), which was published this month. Its origin story traces back to 2014, when Hurwitz, then the chief White House speechwriter to First Lady Michelle Obama and a veteran of President Barack Obama’s wordsmithing team, was reeling from a painful breakup.

“I would get home at night and I had all this time on my hands,” Hurwitz, 42, says of being suddenly single. “When I got an email about this ‘Intro to Judaism’ class at the Jewish community center, I was like, ‘Okay, this will fill some time, get me out of the apartment, maybe meet some people, learn about my heritage.’ ”

Having abandoned Jewish education after her bat mitzvah in the seventh grade, Hurwitz found herself “utterly floored” by the “deep moral wisdom … and the whole sensibility of Judaism” that she learned in that class.

From there, she says, “I spent the last two years of the Obama White House, in my spare time, reading books, taking more classes, going on silent Jewish meditation retreats, which are a thing. And the more I learned, the more I just got like, ‘I really want to share what I’m learning with people.’ ”

The book covers the religious basics — the Torah, Shabbat, holidays and prayers. Beyond that, Hurwitz says, “I’m trying to show people the wisdom Judaism has for our daily lives.”

Discussing the book with PEOPLE, she also indulged some burning questions about her old job working for the Obamas.

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Before the question can even be asked, Hurwitz says: “I did not write that line — she came up with it. My contribution was typing it.” She’s referring to the former first lady’s now-iconic catchphrase from her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

In the years since, Mrs. Obama’s “when they go low …” moment has for many supporters become a reminder or a rally, depending on one’s perspective, about civility in politics.

“I feel very guilty when people give me credit for it, her line,” Hurwitz says. “You know, she lives by that. At this time, which is just such a difficult time, to see someone whose life is an embodiment of ‘When they go low, we go high,’ it is so uplifting. It is such a joy, and I think people are so drawn to that.”

So, then, what was it like to write some of the other lines Mrs. Obama has been known to speak?

“The job of being her speechwriter is really to ask her, ‘What do you want to say?’ And then to type as quickly as possible what she says,” admits Hurwitz, whom Mrs. Obama called “a brilliant writer with a big heart and a kind soul” in a tweet celebrating the Sept. 3 release of Here All Along.

“That’s why I didn’t even think about writing about my experience in the White House,” Hurwitz continues. “The truth of a speechwriter’s life is that it’s spent alone in front of a screen. Doesn’t make for the most glamorous or exciting memoir.”

That Time Melania Trump Ripped Off a Hurwitz-Obama Speech

When First Lady Melania Trump addressed the Republican National Convention in July 2016 with phrases almost identical to the words Hurwitz helped write for Mrs. Obama’s 2008 speech to the Democratic National Convention, Hurwitz says her first reaction was “Oh. God.”

“Making that kind of mistake is every speechwriter’s worst nightmare,” she says.

Meredith McIver, who had worked on the speech, soon explained that Mrs. Trump, in a phone call, read “passages from Mrs. Obama’s speech as examples” of inspiration for her own address. “I wrote them down and later included some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech. … I did not check Mrs. Obama’s speeches,” McIver said at the time.

“I just felt this moment of gratitude that we had the most amazing fact-checkers who scrubbed every line of every speech,” Hurwitz says now. “It was so important to the Obamas to always be accurate and always tell the truth to the American people. It was this incredible concern for accuracy and honesty and truth that we lived by every day.”

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“You can take the girl out of politics,” says Hurwitz, “but, you know … ”

Admitting that she still keeps up with political news and President Donald Trump‘s almost unavoidable penchant for bullying and name-calling on Twitter, Hurwitz notes that Judaism sets a high bar for human decency.

“There’s all this Jewish law, for example, around speech and how we use our speech,” she explains. “Do we speak kindly or unkindly to others? Do we gossip? Do we make people feel ashamed?”

“I do still follow White House politics — not as much as I used to, but I keep a loose tab on things. It makes me appreciate that I have a tradition that is a protest against all of that,” Hurwitz says. “Judaism has such an abhorrence of those who abuse the weak, of those who prey on the vulnerable. It is such an abhorrence of cruelty. And so, when I see cruelty, when I see powerful people abusing those who are vulnerable, I know that my tradition calls me to object to that.”

And so a book that is very much not about the White House may be a little bit about the White House after all.

Says Hurwitz: “I think writing this book was part of my protest.”